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Charles James, 1952

Charles James, Artist and Innovator

Charles James, 1952. Photograph by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Look Job 52-1129 Frame-18

Charles James grew up traveling with his family to fashion capitals all over the globe. He gained inspiration from the world around him and then put his own personal spin on traditional ideas, never choosing to follow any particular seasonal trends. He loved to take funky fabric and work it into ways never seen before. For example, if a fabric was meant to be used in a stiff manner, James would soften it with steam and bend it to his desired shape. He was uncompromising in his vision, always favoring his personal ideals of feminine beauty over the specific desires of his clients, who, despite this stubbornness, loved him. He was a revolutionary iconoclast who considered himself as much an artist and a technician as a designer.

Having never received any conventional education as a designer, James instead developed his own techniques for taming fabric and creating pieces of art that were, both for modern audiences and people of his day, stunning and refreshing. He pioneered the idea of the wrap dress, which he cheekily dubbed the "Taxi" dress (currently on view in Charles James: Beyond Fashion), as part of a sensationalist marketing campaign that claimed the garment was so easy to put on and take off that it could be done in the back of a taxi. This was the beginning of a spirit of boundary-pushing and shock tactics that permeated James's relationship with the media.

James rebelled against the fashion conventions of his time—avoiding side seams at all costs, and creating then-unheard-of horizontal pleats. He formed a new way of looking at fabric and women's bodies that had never really been seen before. All of this art was not only beautiful in its own right but was also thoroughly new, placing James on the very cutting edge of fashion and wearable art. And, he did all of this without any support—his father was even so firmly against his son's assimilation into the fashion world that he forbade the use of the James family name on Charles's millinery shop. Despite this, James still managed to create one of the most commercially and critically successful fashion empires of the twentieth century.

The individualistic attitude and entrepreneurial spirit of Charles James should not only be commended, but should also serve to inspire any young artist who seeks to make a name for themselves. It was his driven spirit that kept him on the forefront of artistic expression during his time. He should be seen as an example of how originality is valued above all in highly competitive art fields such as the fashion industry. James is a testament to how we should all carry ourselves: as bold, uncompromising, and unapologetically creative.

Department: The Costume Institute

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